Governor loses on abortion

March 16, 1995|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

In a sharp defeat for Gov. Parris N. Glendening and abortion rights advocates, the House of Delegates voted last night to keep the state's restrictions on when tax dollars may be used to pay for abortions for poor women on Medicaid.

The 72-67 vote came after more than an hour of debate by more than a dozen delegates on both sides of the always emotional abortion issue. Of the 41 Republicans in the House, 38 voted to keep the restrictions.

The governor had deleted the restrictions from his proposed budget for next year, arguing that they had the effect of treating poor women on Medicaid differently from all other women in the state by limiting their access to abortions.

"Do we allow the 'haves' to have one standard of health care and the 'have-nots' to have another? That's the bottom line," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who backed the governor's position.

But opponents said the 15-year-old restrictions are appropriate and necessary because they limit the use of tax dollars for a procedure of which many taxpayers disapprove.

"It was a compromise, and this is not the time to fool with it," said Del. Marsha G. Perry, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "The current restrictions do not deny that access."

Mr. Glendening lobbied delegates by phone and in one-on-one meetings in his office. The defeat was the biggest for his young administration, although the fight will not be over until the Senate takes up the issue.

Afterward, the governor issued a statement saying, "I am disappointed by the action of the House of Delegates, and look for the state Senate to make the right decision that a woman's right to choose should not be a matter of economics."

But Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and an abortion rights leader in the Senate, said before the House vote that if the delegates restored the restrictions, she doubted that the Senate would contest the decision.

"You can't fight it in the Senate," where an end-of-session filibuster on this issue would be all but certain, Ms. Hoffman said. "If the House is unable to protect poor women, then we're certainly not going to fall on our sword."

Restrictions on when Medicaid funds may be used to pay for an abortion were put on the books in Maryland in 1979, then modified in 1980. They allow Medicaid to pay for an abortion only if the mother's life is in danger, her pregnancy is the result of reported rape or incest, her physical or mental health is seriously threatened, or the fetus suffers from severe abnormality.

Under those rules, the state paid for nearly 3,000 abortions through Medicaid in 1993. State officials estimate that lifting the restrictions would result in about 1,600 more abortions annually.

The abortion vote was the final action taken by the House before it gave preliminary approval to a proposed $14.3 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The 2 1/2 -hour debate on the spending plan offered no surprises. More than 160 amendments to the budget offered by the Appropriations Committee were adopted without any serious challenge.

Republicans, hoping to score political points by suggesting that the Democratic-controlled House had not sufficiently trimmed spending, offered a half-dozen amendments recommending deeper cuts. Their amendments targeted arts and tourism programs, football stadium construction funds, a new neighborhood revitalization grant program and even the amount the Democrats wanted to set aside to offset potential cuts in federal funds.

The first Republican amendment, offered by Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County and lumping together all the proposed additional cuts, was defeated, 102-37. A series of additional amendments suggesting cuts to individual programs included in the Flanagan amendment were also rejected.

"We're trying to make a point," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County. "[Republicans] have been criticized in the past for trying to cut taxes, but that we won't say where to cut the budget. We tried to offer reasonable cuts."

When the budget debate ended, the chatter in the House subsided and the delegates quietly listened as Del. George W. ** Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat, opened the abortion debate by suggesting that public opinion polls show that "a majority of Marylanders do not want their hard-earned tax dollars used for abortions."

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the governor's action simply would bring poor women on Medicaid into line with all other women in the state, whose broad access to abortion services was assured by a 1991 law overwhelmingly ratified by Maryland voters in 1992.

Opponents, including freshman Harford County Republican Nancy Jacobs, questioned statistics cited by abortions rights advocates that suggest most Medicaid abortions now are performed in the second trimester of pregnancy and in expensive hospitals rather than less costly clinics.

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